Friday, November 17, 2006

Theological Contextualization

Before leaving home for missions I attended a one-week world mission course thinking that I had everything to gain and it could help me prepare for the gargantuan tasks that lay ahead. I was not disappointed; it was a good learning experience. We learn about Biblical basis for missions, the history and expansion of Christian movement through missions, mission strategy, the remaining task, strategies, and cross cultural considerations.

However, looking closely at the curriculum and materials presented, theological basis or at least any discussions about the importance of theology in doing missions was definitely lacking. The discussion was dominated by anthropological ideas about cross-cultural considerations. The course culminated with a very elaborate “contextualize worship.” This was when we had a Christian worship service done in Islamic way. We dressed like Muslims and adopted their gestures in prayers and worship but with God through Christ as the object of worship. I didn’t dispute this, I thought that was great. However, I got the impression that contextualization done in this manner is not really contextualization in the true sense of the world. But when this mission course was being done all over the country, this conveys to the churches and (would-be) missionaries that this is what contextualization is all about.

This is the reason that the idea of contextualization have been under fire recently. Its critics would say that contextualization advocates the integration of religious practices into the culture of the believer. For example, a Muslim who became a Christian can continue to go to the mosque and pray five times a day facing Mecca or moderately Christian Muslims can have a mosque like atmosphere, write their own music or use the Koran besides the Bible when they worship. This concept presumes that religion is part of cultural identity and should not be abandoned when one becomes a Christian. If contextualization is being dealt with on the level of anthropology or culture this perspective would really create a big problem for missionary endeavors. If contextualization is limited to culture it is indeed unhelpful and irresponsible concept, and as mentioned above likely to create more problems than solution.

This is the reason that I believe that contextualization should start from theology. Presumably contextualization leads to indigenization. There have been many attempts in many Asian countries to create an indigenous Christian churches. But most of the attempts are concern more with the form rather than the content of the gospel. For example the use of indigenous musical instruments and melodies for religious hymns, or using local drama and dress in presenting the Christmas story, or using the traditional church building as opposes to western style church building. According to a Burmese theologian, these are just attempts to put the same wine in different bottle. In order for the Gospel to be contextualized and acceptable in particular culture, a considerable theological reflections and articulations is essential even though many would consider this activity as pointless and redundant. This is in the light of the prevailing concepts that and theological skill and articulation are unnecessary in the missions field.

Stephen Bevans, a theologian, missionary and teacher provides a valuable assistance for those who struggle with the issue of theological contextualization. He describes models only four are cited here) for understanding contextual theology. These models are used to aid in the understanding of truth but the truth they tried to illuminate is finally larger than any model used to approach it.
First is the translation model. “Translation” suggests the movement from one language system to another, with the primary intent of maintaining the meaning of the words that are used. A translation model of contextual theology rests on the twin assumptions that the gospel may be reduced to a core of meaning, and that all cultures shares a similar structure of meaning and communication. The core of meaning emphasized by those who employ a translation model for theology is heavily quantitative and propositional. What is at stake is the introduction of the facts and concepts of the gospel to a context where the gospel was previously unknown.

Second is the anthropological model. Anthropological model strives for the preservation of the uniqueness of any culture where the gospel takes root and grows toward maturity. Since God is the creator of the world, and humanity, there must be something of God in every culture. This model begins with the affirmation of potential goodness of humanity and the cultures they establish. A theologian who employs this method recognizes that the foundational work of proclaiming the gospel is leaning much about a culture that she or he can become as full a participant as possible in the culture. Related to the foundational work of learning the culture is the explicit theological task of discerning the presence of God within the culture.

Third is the praxis model. This method includes expecting and accepting that authentic theological pursuits are constantly moving between informed and committed responses to human needs and reflections upon how the responses clarify and reshape confessions of faith. Culture, then, is the context within which the praxis model operates. However, culture is neither a target to be hit nor a goal to be achieved. Here culture is a dynamic reality that is going to change with or without theological influence and, therefore, becoming involved with culture is a theological mandate.

Fourth is the synthetic model. The theologian working with this model is first of all interested in dialogue between and among the features of the gospel and culture. Here the uniqueness of the gospel rooted in scripture and traditions, and the uniqueness of the culture as a composite of centuries of growth and change. Holding both the uniqueness of gospel and culture in tension, this model strives for the theological maturity that can emerge out of honest conversation about the ways the gospel and culture mutually pursue freedom and wholeness. Theologian who works with this model is not creating something artificial from synthesizing two realities (gospel and culture) rather creates a third thesis incorporating the best of each reality. The goal is not to rank the contributions of the gospel and culture, but rather to incorporate the values of the gospel and culture when they are most appropriate.(Rick Wilson, Contemporary Gospel Accents, 7-9)

This post attempts to inform missionaries and missionary sending bodies of the importance of theological skill in doing mission. If our goal is to realize a genuine indigenous Christian churches existing in 10/40 window we have understand that a minimal theological insights is indispensable to the task.


John said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia. The trouble is theology is not about Real God. It is always an extension of ones inherently godless ego and its unexamined cultural conditioning which runs hell deep --- always and inevitably.
That having been said please check out these references on Real God.

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for that -- some interesting comments. I tried to link top it on my blog, but unfortunately the "Blog this" in Blogger Beta seems to be broken. I'll have to play with a workaround.

For a different take on contextualisation, you might find this from my blog interesting: Notes from underground: Orthodoxy and Liberation Theology

John said...

All theology is done by inherently godless egos.Egos which are totally possessed by fear.
It is also a product of inherently abstracted and abstracting left brained thinking. Thinking which is an effect a hedge around the core of fear which is the ego.

And what is the function of the thinking mind for the usual dreadfully sane everyperson including theologians? Again it is an abstracting mechanism that either talks/refers to itself or about other left brained abstractions. That is all it ever does. It creates a virtual "reality" world-- a literal tower of babel.
A tower which it is commited to defending at all costs!
Fear rules!

Also for theology to be in any sense about Real God it would have to take into account quite literally everything. All of cosmic & human history and every dimension of of the multi-dimensional universe which is one whole and indivisible.
But even then it would still only be talking about the always moment to moment changing/morphing patterns of energy. The products or apparitions which spontaneously arise in the world klik-klak machine which has no interest whatsoever in the survival of any of its arising forms including the HUMAN form.

And this abstracted mind cant even begin to talk about the Infinitely Radiant Sea of Conscious Light in which all of these beginningless and endless patterns arise, change and pass away.
That having been said please check out:


Joey said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the comment and also thanks for the link. I checked your blog and i will surely visit it more often. You seem to have interesting posts about missions and contextualization as well.

I linked your blog here. Blessings!

Steve Hayes said...

John said: All theology is done by inherently godless egos.Egos which are totally possessed by fear.
It is also a product of inherently abstracted and abstracting left brained thinking. Thinking which is an effect a hedge around the core of fear which is the ego.

St Nilus said: A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.

Admin said...

We need to clearly distinguish between indigenizing the church and contextualizing the church. Indigenization more focus on the surface by promoting 3 things: self governing, self supporting and self propagating. While contextualization goes beyond that convered by indigenization. We can self govern, self support and self propagate but all theological concepts we present are borrowed or adopted from the west. We need to contextualize the Bible message to the host culture without violating it. This will result in producing local theology. Contextualization is an effort to make the message relevant to the culture and yet keep faithful to the Scriptures. How can it be done? Missionaries need to be deep rooted in Bible knowledge, able to interprete the Bible correctly, understand the host culture and his own culture. And above all those things, he must dependent totally on the Holy Spirit to give wisdom in contextualizing his message.

Bob Munson said...

Joey, I have been reading Bevans book on contextualizing theology. When I websearched this topic, I hit your blog. Thanks for your thoughts... it is a difficult area in missions. I wish I had the answer. I hope that Thailand is treating you well and giving you opportunity for greater insight in this area.
Bob Munson